‘We’re not going to tell you who the client is, because we don’t want your creativity, or your capacity for constructing a narrative, to be limited by a product or a brand. Because what we’ll be creating together this semester is more than that. It’s aesthetic, discursive. It’s embodied. Hopefully.’
Joe, our seminar tutor, is wearing the same neutral-toned indoor-outerwear as the design students. A few of them are here in the lecture theatre, dressed in a gradient of beiges and browns, watching him with wide eyes.
‘He runs an experimental design studio that’s all about space as grounded and, like, real,’ Kate, an excitable communications major I know from an elective, whispers in my ear. ‘He’s worked with some amazing organisations.’
To my left, Jen stifles a giggle. I kick her in the leg.
I’ve known Jen since first year, when we’d wear dark lipstick and roll our eyes every time a man tried to interpret Donna Haraway. Since second year, she has written every essay from the viewpoint of the ‘non-human’. We’re two of the idiots who chose to do an Honours degree in literature the year the government doubled the price of humanities courses. Her family is wealthy, I think. For me, HECS has just never felt like real money. I guess if I spent more time with economics students, who talk less about ‘positionality’ and more about ‘dividends’, maybe I could change that. The boy in front of me is wearing a Patagonia vest, which is probably a good place to start.
‘Fuck.’ Jen has taken a second to register my kick. The few times Jen has met Kate, it’s clear she thinks she’s an idiot. Still, I like how I feel around Kate, the way her optimism washes over me as she says things like ‘Corporations are made of people, and it’s people who make a difference,’ and ‘Did you know Michelle was actually Obama’s boss at the firm they worked at? So inspiring.’
I think about telling them I’ve already heard of Joe. His agency publishes a journal on public space, offering one of Melbourne’s last full-time, paid writing jobs. My friend is the digital editor there; she’s moving to London at the end of the year, and she’s already suggested me as a potential replacement. I don’t say anything because I don’t want Kate to know that the job is available—she’s very charismatic—or Jen to judge me for giving up on academia.
Joe is scanning the room when our eyes meet and I wonder if he recognises me. He followed me back on Instagram just last night, after all. He projects a slide on the wall. Transdisciplinary Creative Ecology is a core subject for all Honours and Masters students studying across Communications, the Social Sciences or Arts, offering students an opportunity to craft a mindset of creativity and curiosity in a unique hybrid experience that breaks down the divide between education and industry.
‘You’re no longer a class. From now on, you are a creative lab.’ The design students look at him as if he’s just revealed the Pantone 2025 Color of the Year.
‘And now, introducing someone special.’ I jump as I realise my thesis supervisor, Sally, has joined him at the front. Her prematurely grey hair is wiry. She looks, more than usual, as if she’s just woken up mid-sleepwalk. Her navy overalls make Joe and the designers’ outfits look like weird costumes.
‘Sally is a literature professor. She’s interested in the field of emotion: affect. She’ll be bringing an essential emotional lens to the lab.’ I watch Sally surveying the class and feel a sting of jealousy. What if she finds some other student she’d rather lend her dog-eared Ursula Le Guin to?
The boy in the Patagonia vest says something to the person next to him, snickering. I decide I’d rather stay in debt forever than be his friend.
The slide changes to a video shot deep underwater, blue shading to an ominous black. I feel a cramp forming.
‘The prompt for this semester is feeling through blue.’ Sally frowns at us over her glasses. ‘We’re going to explore what it means to relate affectively to the vastness of the ocean: the ocean as a chasm, as a body we can’t control.’ Choking on the last words as if they’re not ready to leave her mouth, she catches my eye with an apologetic look.
I feel a rush of blood to my cheeks. Seeing my hands clenched in my lap, Jen gently pries my fingers apart.
Joe instructs us that the class will split into smaller groups to develop a response to the theme explored through a medium of our choice. Then, on behalf of the client, Joe’s studio will select the winning project to be used as part of a ‘real-life creative campaign’. He trusts us, ‘as adults’, to choose the groups ourselves, but that we should be ‘as diverse and transdisciplinary as possible’. Oblivious to Jen’s contempt, Kate suggests we all stick together. A politics major called Ben wearing a cap that says Join Your Union and a quiet screen studies major called Ashel join us. We get a coffee after class and I’m relieved to see they’re all taking the project as seriously as I have to.
‘I’m just going to be honest,’ Kate says. ‘Everyone is going to do climate change. I almost think it’s too obvious. Joe would want us to go deeper….’
I’m surprised when Jen agrees. ‘I think climate change should be a given, rather than the object of spectacle. You know?’
‘Yes!’ says Ashel and I jump because he’s been quiet until now. ‘My family is from Sri Lanka, and some of my cousins had to rebuild their homes after the two thousand and four tsunami. It was so horrible, right, but it was also such a spectacle, like Jen says, in the news here. It was so obviously an event, you know, it was visceral, you could empathise with the victims because it just felt like bad luck, like it was out of everyone’s hands. But so many Sri Lankan asylum seekers get turned away from Australia or die at sea and it’s hardly talked about.’
Kate’s eyes well with tears.
‘You know what else is hardly reported?’ Ben says. He tells us about his thesis topic: during the pandemic, thousands of stranded seafarers all over the world have not been able to enter the country they’re meant to deliver to. The companies they work for aren’t taking accountability. He’s been volunteering at the Maritime Union sending care packages.
‘It’s fucked because the corporations want to reap the benefits of a globalisation while—’
Jen interrupts. What if we were to address the seafarers’ crisis from the point of view of the ocean?
Ashel asks if we’ve heard of a film style called ‘sensory ethnography’. Jen nods and now they’re looking at each other the way the design students look at Joe.
‘I think it’s really about embodying the ocean as a barrier, both real and imagined,’ says Jen.
The next day is my thesis meeting with Sally.
As if reading my mind, she tells me she had nothing to do with deciding the theme for this semester of Transdisciplinary Creative Ecology—and I feel my cheeks flush. Of course she hasn’t shaped an entire syllabus based on one stupid memory I shared with her.
‘The department forced me to take the class at the last minute,’ she says. Her left eye twitches, magnified behind her thick glasses.
I ask if she knows who the client is and she says no without looking at me.
We start talking about a reading she recommended and her face softens. I remember when she told me working at the university makes her feel like one of the rabbits in Watership Down.
We spend the second Transdisciplinary Creative Ecology class ‘workshopping’ with our groups. Joe has put on ambient music and wanders through the classroom in off-white Gore-Tex hiking pants. I can’t see Sally anywhere.
Ashel takes us through something called ‘found footage’ shot underwater and I realise I’m shaking. And so is Kate. I’ve read that looking into a bright light can make you sneeze, and I swear some variation happens to me when she squeezes my arm and asks me what’s wrong, and I look at her blue eyes brimming with earnestness.
‘I nearly drowned last year,’ I blurt out. I tell them about the visit to my parents’ beach house. I’m embarrassed about having a problem stemming from something so middle class, but Jen gives me a nod—she’s heard the story before—and Kate is stroking my arm, ignoring the rash creeping up my wrist, so I continue.
‘There’s not much to say. I got dumped by a wave and didn’t know which way was up for ages, then got swept out in a rip. I understand it’s nothing compared to what we’re talking about, you know, seafarers stranded at sea—’
‘You need to lean into this!’ Joe has crept up on us and he’s staring at me with intensity. ‘You need to harness how that felt. How can you turn it into discourse… into aesthetics?!’
As his eyes hold mine, I try desperately think of something intelligent to say.
‘We could make a video essay,’ Jen says, ‘which is both!’
‘Our project is about the seafarers working in commercial shipping who are stranded in the pandemic,’ Kate explains to Joe.
‘But conceptually, we’re interested in the ocean as a sort of barrier, both real and imagined,’ Jen interjects.
‘Very interesting,’ Joe says. ‘Just remember to focus on feeling. The viscerality, the ugliness! Don’t get too bogged down in ah, politics.’
I nod enthusiastically but if Sally were here, I know she’d tell him they’re the same thing.
Jen suggests I should try something: an experimental writing exercise where the victim embodies the oppressor and maybe it could be the basis for the essay? I flinch and say getting caught in a rip isn’t nearly as bad as, you know, violent relationships. Kate squeezes my hand and urges me to take my trauma seriously. Jen tells me I have a very anthropocentric understanding of violence. I say I’ll think about it.
I’m telling Sally about the essay the group asked me to write about almost drowning.
‘I wouldn’t bother with it,’ she says. ‘Focus on your thesis.’
‘But it could be a really good way for me to, you know, process what happened.’ She cocks her head to the side but says nothing, so I tell her how I’m up for the job at Joe’s agency’s journal on public space, that maybe this could be a way for my writing to stand out enough for him to hire me.
Her brow furrows. ‘What?’
‘You’re the one who told me to rethink doing a PhD?’ My voice sounds whinier than I was hoping for.
‘But I didn’t say to give up and work in copywriting.’
‘It’s actually a pretty respected magazine,’ I say, keeping my voice as monotone as possible to hide my ache for her approval.
I try to bring the conversation back to the video essay, hoping she’ll get excited by the creative process of it all. She’s looking at everything in the room but me and I realise she is probably trying to figure out how to tell me that I’m just not a good enough writer to pull off an experimental, posthumanist essay. My anxieties compound when she ends the meeting early, muttering about urgent admin, smiling awkwardly and still not meeting my eye.
My friend who works for Joe tells me she sent him one of my uni essays on ‘The Narrativity of Place’. She says he liked it but it didn’t tell the reader anything about who I was. I tell her I’m not sure why a magazine that publishes sponsored content on ethical investing or the benefits of community housing over public housing would need my story, and she tells me I’ve been in academia too long.
We join Ben in volunteering at the Maritime Union the week the ocean catches on fire in the Gulf of Mexico and I realise it would be better to befriend someone who can survive at sea than someone who understands debt. Ben introduces us to his friend Geoff, who is old and wiry and calls everybody ‘goose’. He doesn’t know any of the stranded seafarers but he’s volunteering out of solidarity. He works for an oil and gas corporation that is ‘just absolutely, positively fucked.’ They don’t look after their people at all.
‘Tell them about what happened in February,’ Ben nudges him. Geoff rearranges his hairy face to look embarrassed but without much more prompting he launches into a well-worn story—how a crew member had fallen overboard during a rough storm and Geoff had jumped in to save him.
‘Bastards only gave us two sick days,’ he says. ‘I’m pretty sure we both had hypothermia.’
The union gives us t-shirts saying We sea everything. I sleep in mine that night. I dream I’m drowning in a rip but this time Geoff is treading water next to me, yelling, ‘Stop swimming against it, you silly goose!’
I wake up in the middle of the night and start writing the essay. I turn on voice-to-text and speak into darkness.
I knock and knock on Sally’s office door but she doesn’t answer.
Beneath my interface, you’re crushed, compressed.
Submerged in a world where you’re not welcome.
My dark impasse saturates your futures until only one is left:
Feeling through blue, somewhere between disenchantment and death,
Deep in my depths, and
Out of yours.
I read the rest of the essay to the group. Kate is crying. Jen squeezes my arm and tells me it’s ‘haunting’. They agree I have perfectly captured my drowning experience and the seafarers’ plight from the positionality of the ocean.
I’m embarrassed by the whole thing but when Ashel takes us through the new edit I can watch the shaky footage without feeling sick.
That night I lie awake scrolling through Joe’s design agency’s journal on public space, thinking about all the radical artists and writers I could commission as the Digital Editor and how their words could influence the praxis of the architects and designers who read them. We could do a more-than-human video essay series, even. Maybe whoever the client is for Transdisciplinary Creative Ecology might let Joe publish our video essay in the journal. I play Ash’s found footage over and over on my phone, searching for the best thumbnail screenshot I would use.
I knock for five minutes. Sally’s door is unlocked, so I let myself in. The room is empty, all her books gone. I spin myself around in her ergonomic chair.
My course coordinator emails me to introduce me to my new thesis supervisor. I send Sally a bunch of question marks. The email bounces.
Joe chooses our project for the client. It’s positively heterotopic, he tells us. He pulls me aside after class to tell me he’ll email soon about coming into the agency for a ‘casual chat’ about the Digital Editor role.
A few weeks later, Ashel asks the course coordinator if we can submit our video essay to a film festival but they tell us everything made during the class is the property of Joe’s design agency.
I still haven’t heard from Joe a week after that. I spend two hours crafting a polite follow-up email, then tag along with Jen to an information night for Humanities PhDs.
We keep volunteering at the docks, all of us. We agree doing something away from the screen—something tangible—is good for us. It’s been really helping to ground me from my anxiety about my uncertain future. Also, a lot of seafarers are still stranded.
One afternoon after a shift, Ashel and I are drinking beers on the docks with our legs swinging over the water, when he lets out a choking noise, his beer slipping through his fingers and into the sea.
‘Watch it!’ shouts Geoff.
I want to point out that his indignation about Ashel accidentally littering is a bit rich coming from someone employed by a gas corporation, but then Ashel grabs my knee, piercing the skin. He passes me his phone, his hand shaking; I snatch it before it falls into the ocean.
‘My friend from Sri Lanka sent it ….’
The sun is glinting off the harbour in all directions and I have to cover the screen with my hand to see anything. It’s our video essay, hosted on a website called dontriskit.org. If you travel illegally to Australia, your journey across dangerous seas in unpredictable weather will be in vain.
Ashel’s deliberately choppy footage plays automatically and I cringe as I hear my voice begin to recite the essay. Told from the viewpoint of the ocean, it almost seems like the government is relaying a message from a higher power, as if it’s out of their hands.
The next week, Sally’s stern-looking headshot is splashed across the news and I wonder what took her so long to blow the whistle. One headline reads University students unknowing participants in Federal Government’s anti-Asylum Seeker campaign. Another says Overreaction to illegal refugee ‘scandal’ shows defunding the humanities was the right choice.
I check Joe’s design studio website to see if they’ve responded. They haven’t but they are advertising for a ‘Digital Editor (Intern/Volunteer)’ for their public space journal.
I click to my emails. One from the university invites me to be part of a ‘student-led advisory panel’ responsible for securing an industry partnership for next year’s Transdisciplinary Creative Ecology. Given recent events, the email reads, it is integral that our future partners align with the university’s dedication to diversity and inclusivity and also offer students an opportunity to craft a mindset of creativity and curiosity in a unique hybrid experience that breaks down the divide between education and industry.
Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.